Commentary: 'Soda tax' an investment in Philly's children

By Kathy Fisher

A well-funded ad campaign should not dictate the fate of policy that will improve our children's future.

Mayor Kenney has proposed the beverage tax to fund pre-K and other initiatives. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

If you live in Philadelphia, you've most likely seen the American Beverage Association's "grocery tax" commercials. These misleading spots, replicated in major and neighborhood newspapers alike, claim that families' supermarket bills will rise astronomically should Mayor Kenney's proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages go into effect.

The simple facts are: The tax is on sugar-sweetened beverages only, not other grocery items, and people of all income levels can choose to cut back on their consumption by choosing other beverages.

As an organization that strives to build a community where all people have the food they need to live healthy lives, we are fully in favor of the proposed legislation.

With just one similar tax, in Berkeley, Calif. - a city very different from our own - the truth is that there is limited information on exactly how this tax would affect sales or whether it would significantly diminish consumption here. What we can tell you, as antihunger advocates, is: As hard as we try, we will never come close to ending hunger in our city if we don't help people move out of poverty.

Far too many Philadelphians simply do not have sufficient income to afford an adequate, nutritious diet. Nearly half a million Philadelphians receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps). Forty percent are children.

For the majority of participants, SNAP benefits do not last the month. People then turn to food pantries for help. The food insecurity they face puts them at high risk for long-term health conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.

As an organization, we will continue to enroll thousands in SNAP, solicit ongoing donations to food pantries, and support immediate solutions that help feed people. But we can do this until the end of time and make little long-term progress if we don't advocate and enact policies that promote economic security.

The proceeds of the beverage tax would fund pre-K, community schools, improvements to recreation centers, and more. They are exactly the type of investments Philadelphia's children need to succeed in the future and move out of poverty.

Furthermore, these initiatives can help fight hunger. Children attending pre-K can receive federally funded breakfast and lunch each school day, and both recreation centers and community schools can give children access to these meals and snacks year round.

Similar tax measures have failed elsewhere because the beverage industry poured resources (more than $1.5 million has been spent in Philadelphia already) into protecting its profits. But we have every confidence that the beverage industry will adapt, just as the food industry did when Congress passed higher nutrition standards for school meals.

The beverage industry would be just as innovative, which is exactly what we want our children to be. We want them to get the education they need so that they can grow up to be the food-science experts, the graphic designers, and the marketing professionals who develop healthier affordable products and create campaigns to promote them.

Innovation is what America is about. We have no concerns about the sustainability of the beverage industry. But we have every concern about the children in our city who are not getting what they need for healthy, successful futures.

We could wait forever. No sector or industry is going to come forward and say, "Please, tax us." Harrisburg and Washington are not coming to the rescue with additional funding to support these initiatives. And the reality is, our children cannot wait any longer.

Philadelphia must be bold, it must be proactive, and it must bravely invest in children's potential now. Our children will be the innovators of tomorrow if we put their interests before the financial interests of big soda.

Kathy Fisher is policy manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger (